Australian Open 2024: The Happy Slam Begins

Australian Open 2024 (photo: Andreas Thies/Chip & Charge)

MELBOURNE/WASHINGTON, January 14, 2024 (by Michael Dickens)

Australian Open 2024 launched in Melbourne Park on a Sunday for the first time after expanding to 15 days, joining the French Open. By all accounts, with plenty of star power headlining the first-day order of play, featuring Top-10 talents Jannik Sinner and Maria Sakkari on Rod Laver Arena during the day session and defending champions Novak Djokovic and Aryna Sabalenka at night. With a total of 16 men’s and 16 women’s singles matches spread across 10 courts, there was something for everyone to enjoy and cheer about.

As Day One of the year’s first major – dubbed the “Happy Slam” – began under partly cloudy skies and temperatures of 19 degrees Celsius (66 Fahrenheit), five matches (three women’s and two men’s) began at 11 a.m., featuring No. 32 seed Leylah Fernandez of Canada, ranked 36th, against 17-year-old Czech qualifier Sara Bejlek, ranked No. 134, who was making her second appearance in the AO main draw. A year after losing to fellow Czech and former Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, 6-3, 6-1, she advanced to this year’s main draw after winning three straight qualifying matches without dropping a set. However, after overcoming an early break of serve, Fernandez went on to garner a 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory over Bejlek to advance in an hour and 33 minutes on John Cain Aren. It’s just the second time the Canadian has reached the second round at Melbourne.

Fernandez won 71 percent of her first-set points, hit 27 winners to 26 unforced errors and outpointed Bejlek 76-59. Asked what’s she doing differently this year, she said in her on-court interview: “Not really a change, but more having the guts to go to the net. Sometimes, I lost the point and sometimes I would win them. I just have to keep going and have fun.”

Next, Fernandez will face 23-year-old American Alycia Parks, who won her AO main-draw debut over Ukraine’s Daria Snigur, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Other early winners among the men included: No. 41 Matteo Arnaldi of Italy, who beat 176th-ranked Australian wild card Adam Walton, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-4; No. 83 Jaume Munar of Spain, who upset No. 48 Alexander Shevchenko of Russia, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1.

On the women’s side: No. 9 seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic rallied to beat 122nd-ranked wild card Mai Hontama of Japan, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3; No. 28 seed Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine came back to defeat No. 56 Lucia Bronzetti of Italy, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3; No. 81 Tamara Korpatsch of Germany won 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 over No. 102 Jodie Burrage of Great Britain; and No. 90 Kamilla Rakhimova of Russia who beat No. 88 Emina Bektas of the United States, 6-4, 6-4.

Is this the year for Jannik Sinner to win a major?

As it approached noon in Melbourne, it was time for the Day Session’s featured attraction, which starred World No. 4 and fourth seed Jannik Sinner of Italy against No. 59 Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands to commence on Rod Laver Arena. The Carota Boys – Sinner’s band of a half-dozen brightly-attired Italian fans dressed in orange carrot suits – were on hand to cheer for their favorite and the 22-year-old South Tyrolean didn’t disappoint. Sinner defeated van de Zandschulp, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, in two hours and 34 minutes. Next, he will play another Dutchman, 148th-ranked qualifier Jesper de Jong.

Making his fifth appearance in the AO main draw and looking to improve upon his 2022 quarterfinal finish, Sinner started well with a good performance that included seven aces and 26 overall winners. He offset an uncharacteristic 37 unforced errors by breaking his opponent’s serve five times in 15 attempts. He outpointed van de Zandschulp 106-89.

“It’s never easy playing the first match of the season, so I’m happy to get the win and now I have two days of practice to get better,” Sinner said in his on-court interview after the victory.

Sinner is coming off an in-form, breakthrough 2023 season in which he compiled a 64-15 win-loss record, won four titles — including a pair of late-season ATP 500 triumphs in Vienna and Beijing — and earned $8.2 million in prize money in 2023. He capped his remarkable year by beating World No. 1 Novak Djokovic twice in three meetings during the final two weeks of the season and led Italy to the Davis Cup title.

“At the end of the year I played really good,” Sinner said during his pre-tournament news conference on Friday. “Honestly, I missed being a little bit out of competition in the last one and a half, two months or so, maybe less. It’s good to be back here, to have the connection with the crowd and everything. Let’s see how it goes.”

With victories last season against Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Holger Rune to go with his twin triumphs over Djokovic, Sinner showed he can more than hold his own against Top 10 competition. Maybe, just maybe, this is Sinner’s year to win a major.

“For sure mindset is a key point in our sport,” said Sinner, who reached his first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon last summer. “It gives you a good feeling when you lose so many times and then you win finally because it shows also the progress you’re making as a player.

“With Daniil, for example, I lost I think six times in a row, then I figured out that I can win against him if I play some good tennis. The mental part is really important. You always have to believe in yourself. I think that’s the most important thing for a tennis player.”

Can Sinner carry his 2023 momentum over to 2024? “Obviously, it’s tough to say how the season will go,” he said, suggesting that every season is different. “I have still the confidence inside me, for sure.”

Should he reach his first Grand Slam final during the Australian fortnight, he would become the first Italian player in history to reach an Australian Open singles final.

Around Melbourne Park

Tennis legends Evonne Goolagong Cawley of Australia and Andre Agassi of the United States, both Hall of Famers, joined AO tournament director Craig Tiley and distinguished guests in celebrating the arrival of the trophies, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup and Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, to mark the beginning of Australian Open 2024.

Sunday’s Australian Open results

Monday’s Australian Open order of play

By the numbers

The Australian Open set an AO Opening Week attendance record with a cumulative attendance (Monday, Jan. 8 through Saturday, Jan. 13) of 89,894. The previous record of 63,120 was set in 2023.

“Quotable …”

“It doesn’t really matter. At the end, it’s just the first day, then the tournament goes back to normal after these Sunday matches. People have two days off, then it goes back to normal.”

— Women’s top seed Iga Swiatek, during her pre-tournament news conference, on the Australian Open’s decision to begin on a Sunday instead of a Monday, which has created a 15-day event for the first time in tournament history.